It was not as though Cesc Fabregas was without "form". A prime suspect in the notorious "Pizzagate" affair, a kid with as much attitude as skill to spare and with more than a handful of unsavoury incidents against his name, including an allegation backed by some compelling video evidence that as a mere 17-year-old he had stooped to spit at the fallen Michael Ballack in a Champions League game, he was at the very least a football angel with a dirty face and something less than an immaculate record for good conduct.
So why was his behaviour at Goodison Park at the weekend quite so shocking? Partly it was because we had come to expect more a thousand times more.
This, after all, was the 20-year-old with the world of football at his feet. This was the precociously talented, feisty boy who, for the first half of the season, had been promising to become a man of sublime gifts and vast influence. He announced both his hunger and his ambitions, which included the captaincy of Arsenal. No one was less reticent about the fact that the departure of the great Thierry Henry was not a loss but an opportunity for Fabregas and young colleagues who had their spirit sapped in the court of a huge but essentially ungenerous presence.
Yes, given all that, and Fabregas's wonderful vein of creativity which has been the brilliant thread of Arsenal's often breathtaking football, it was deeply depressing to see him writhing on the floor as though the illegally thrown but plainly innocuous arm of his Everton rival and compatriot Mikel Arteta had brought exquisite and disabling pain.
But there was something worse and it came later when Arteta reflected on the red card that his manager David Moyes was convinced had been produced by the referee only as a direct result of Fabregas's writhings.
If Arteta, a wonderfully fluent talent himself, a player who, before his dismissal, had consistently defied the idea that his team was hopelessly outgunned in terms of individual ability, had chosen to write a succinct epitaph to a year of unbridled cheating and sour spirit in football, he could scarcely have done better than in what we must believe were a few unguarded comments in the heat of a painful defeat.
Said Arteta, "Fabregas tried to gain an advantage for his team, which is normal, as I try to do as well, but sometimes you're disappointed, not because of a sending-off but because you lost a game you should have won."
There is only one translation and it is hard to imagine at least outside the "exclusive" hotel in Manchester where United players staged their squalid impression of the fall of the Roman empire which created rage in the very bones of their manager, Sir Alex Ferguson a more dismal commentary on the working values of big-time football in 2007.
What Arteta was saying was simple enough. There is just one legitimate cause for regret in today's football. It is to lose ... lose because, to re-employ his euphemism, you failed in your attempts to gain an advantage for your team. You didn't cheat well enough. You didn't manage to create the effect of serious injury. You didn't manage to confuse the man in charge of controlling the game, to bend utterly what passes for justice, and then, having pulled off the dark art, finally strut off the field with mocking applause for the raging home fans.
Fabregas's performance begged another question at Goodison. If the situation had been reversed, if Fabregas had held off Arteta with his arm, and the Everton man had gone down as though he had been hit by a sniper's bullet and then reappeared friskily scarcely a minute later, would the thunder of outrage have sounded quite so loud? Of course not. Arteta's quietly uttered truth went to the very heart of football's problem. It declared that who cheated best won and this conditioned all other reactions to the impostors of win and loss.
Arsenal's manager, Arsne Wenger, who has given so much that is enduringly brilliant to the English game, and not least the first half of this current season, was asked if Fabregas's reaction had been exaggerated. He denied it. He said that Fabregas had been hit. There was no equivocation, no concession that maybe the boy wonder had a pain threshold that would have to be rated low in a nursery playpen.
And why would there be? It would make sense only of a grotesque parody of the behaviour of a true sportsman. It wouldn't square, certainly, with the nerve of Fabregas, the hard-edged fury of his best work in the closest situations, a contribution that has persuaded some of us that if he can maintain his rhythm and bite in the second half of the season he must win every award for individual achievement by a mile.
At times Fabregas suggests he has allocated for himself the noblest vocation of any footballer. He plays a game of beauty and magic. He creates opportunities where they apparently do not exist. He reminds us that, yes, football is a simple game, but only when an immense amount of hard work and intelligence is applied.
Yet at Goodison Park on Saturday night he carelessly deposited all of that in the gutter. He invited us to look into the dirt of football rather than up to the stars, and when he left us he did it with a cocky, unabashed stride.
Saddest of all was that he seemed utterly unaware that he had cheated no one more profoundly than himself.
Belichick the perfect machine lacks champion's heart
The historic 16-0 perfect season of the New England Patriots is, according to their defensive end Richard Seymour, evidence of a team that has "the heart of a champion". Perhaps, however, in the relentlessly technical age of the gridiron, it speaks more persuasively of the head of a computer. A computer called Bill Belichick.
Belichick, having won three Super Bowls in four years, was already up there with the great coaches like Don Shula of Miami who had a perfect year when the National Football League played just 14 games and San Francisco's Bill Walsh.
However, Belichick is likely to remain a legend in his own coach's video theatre. He is the ultimate technocrat who, in moments of supreme success, pats away the Gatorade streaming down his face and makes a careful note of the flanker-fly play that went marginally wrong in the eighth play of the third quarter.
While the big Seymour was swooning about the "heart of a champion" after the remarkable comeback against the New York Giants, Belichick was declaring, "You know we still have a lot of things to work on." A brilliant man, no doubt, but not one to inspire the devotion of the players of the great leader of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi. "What I loved about him," said one ex-player, "was he never played favourites. He treated us all like dogs."
Belichick, albeit brilliantly, reminds you a little more of the old time-serving American coach in the Canadian Football League who, when asked how he thought his team played, growled, "How the hell do I know? I haven't had time to look at the film."
Capello must look past the image and choose Bentley
David Bentley is not exactly a pin-up boy of English football. He has never attended the David Beckham school of public relations. At Arsenal he had reputation for being, how shall we say it, a little high on himself and when he announced that he was "too fatigued" to go on an England Under 21-tour some said he had killed his international hopes at birth.
Now his Blackburn manager Mark Hughes is urging the new head coach of England, Fabio Capello, to take a closer look at Bentley's talent not his image. It is certainly no hardship to endorse this bold advocacy of taking a look beyond the current membership of the Golden Generation Old Boys Club. Says the trenchant Hughes after another uplifting display from the kid who has always insisted that he should be judged solely on his talent, "We think he is good enough to be in not just the England squad but the team."
Capello's track record suggests that young Bentley (left) will be given the benefit of a serious appraisal. This could be good for both the team and just as vitally the creation of a platitude-free zone for a new England squad, one that did not run out of excuses some time ago.Reuse content